This is my second review for National Poetry Month and is, once again, another unique volume published by Seagull Books. The translator of this volume is Mark Hutchinson.
As I first read the introduction to this volume, the piece of information that stuck out to me immediately was that Char was influenced by Heraclitus, the pre-Socratic philosopher. Char imitates Heraclitus’ style of short and puzzling works as well as his theme of strife. The pre-Socratic course I took in graduate school was one of the most challenging yet rewarding courses in my career as a student. The Ancient Greek, which is fragmentary, is difficult to put together and even more difficult to analyze when one has come up with an English version. Heraclitus acquired the nickname “The Obscure” for good reason. I had the same feelings, both of obscurity and difficulty, as I was reading Char.
The poems are in various lengths and some of the are not poems at all, but actually prose that still read like poems. “Pontoneers” is an excellent example of a shorter work in the Heracletian style:
Two riverbanks are needed for truth: one for our outward
journey, the other for truth’s return. Paths that soak up their
mist. That preserve our merry laughter intact. That, even when
broken, are a haven for our juniors, swimming in icy waters.
I could spend a lifetime trying to unpack these few short lines and each time I look at them I find something different. They are reminiscent to me of Heraclitus’ famous line about never being able to step into the same river twice. But here Char reminds us of the ever-changing nature of our existence by posing two rivers and suggesting that what we experience, our own personal truth, may be different depending on which path we take.
Char struggles with the idea of existence and whether or not something of us serves in an afterlife. Sometimes he comes across as a Stoic, such as in these few lines from “Loins.”
In taking leave of the world, we return to what was out there
before the earth and stars were formed; to space, that is. We
are that space, in all its prodigality. We return to aerial day and
its black rejoicing.
The Stoic idea that something of us, of our spirit, survives seems to be lurking in these lines. But there are also times when I thought that Char leaned toward the Epicurean. A line in “How Did I Ever Get this Late?” stood out to me as particularly Epicurean. He imagines a deity that sets the human experience in motion but then steps back and has nothing else to do with its own creations. The “Master Mechanic” watches his own chaos for his amusement:
In the immense community of the heavely clock
face, the Master Mechanic, it would seem, has greased the
motors and slipped away, chuckling, to amuse himself elsewhere.
This volume of poetry is nearly impossible to write a coherent review for. The selections that are chosen for this edition are a sampling of the poet’s wide range of styles and topics. Char’s enigmatic messages and obscure writing style are as difficult to unpack as Heraclitus. But this is absolutely a volume that any lover of poetry will want to have on his or her shelf. I find that the most challenging volumes of poetry are the most rewarding.
Finally, I have to say something about beautiful book jackets that are all designed by Sunandini Banerjee of Seagull Books. Each volume is wonderfully colorful and captures the spirit of the poems contained within.
About the Author:
He spent his childhood in Névons, the substantial family home completed at his birth, then studied as a boarder at the school of Avignon and subsequently, in 1925, a student at L’École de Commerce de Marseille, where he read Plutarch, François Villon, Racine, the German Romantics, Alfred de Vigny, Gérard de Nerval and Charles Baudelaire.
Char was a friend and close associate of Albert Camus, Georges Bataille and Maurice Blanchot among writers, Pablo Picasso, Joan Miró and Victor Brauner among painters.